Recently, for the CONSTELIS VOSS "Writing While Queer" blog, I wrote an article to get an angle on keywords. Yes, I'll be honest about it: The Shocking Difference between a Good Book and a Great One was written for SEO, but of course—because I'm not normal—I had to get all "art theory" about it.
Went big bang post-structuralist on the idea that there could ever be such a thing as a universally good book, and came out the other side more appreciative of indie books than ever before. But that's not really why I'm writing this article on a personal domain name I've had since the dawn of the dinosaurs. Mostly, I wanted to be real about why I wrote the article, but beyond the Google SEO angle, there's something else. I worry constantly that I don't write good books.
It's funny. I know in my heart that I was meant to be an artist of some accord, before tech-freelance became my only real employable vantage. I was damn good at it, but that's besides the point. Paintings, music, art education, literature—the world of art is where I belong—but I do worry that I'm not quite cut out for it. That even if I do make books-as-art and write characters readers can truly care about, I'm never really going to be able to call myself an author who writes good books.
I think of it like this: if any book can be good or bad depending on the reader, and publishing is a business, popular consensus of "good" is the only actual way to measure the damn concept. Therein, the only real litmus of "good" is if very many readers believe your books are good. That requires systemic backup, PR and a whole host of other things that I'm just far too disabled to chase. To wit, my books don't fit this notion of good. Most of my favorite books don't fit it, either. That troubles me as I'm sure it troubles many authors.
This notion of "good by popularity" creates a strange sort of cognitive dissonance as a writer. We know what a good book is, or else we wouldn't bother writing anything at all. However, the "good" we're chasing is vision, art, aesthetic, meaning, connection, qualia, expression, character. Authors scrape and toil for the old idea of what "a good book" is, which is through an art lens. Wherein publishing, bless its heart, is looking from a capitalist one. Ask any publishing professional and they'll tell you that publishing is a business, first.
So. Where does this leave the author-artist, let alone the tech-businessman? It leaves them feeling the familiar mix of arrogance and insecurity that all artists share. How long can I stand behind art's mantle and request my work be seen through the lens of something so many people devalue? Why, even my old industry seems primed to eradicate the arts out of arrogant AI carelessness. It would kill my creative spirit and nose-dive my integrity, but joining the technocrat bandwagon is the smart, easy business move.
The ease of this does beg me to question myself, as neurotic as I am. Do I chase this bookish art dragon for survival under capitalism, insecurity in the face of impossible hegemonic odds, or because I want to do great things for great, underserved people?
I used to be pretty firmly in the camp of believing that I was on this journey for systemic-just reasons. I'd convinced myself that once I knocked down a literary-institutional gate that I'd leave the door open for others, pave a way, make it right. But do you ever ask yourself why so few authors do this for their excluded peers? Does it boil down to insecurity? What if it boils down to survival?
As my thoughts spill out, naked, a bit disjointed, and vulnerable, I wonder what my personal answer for chasing this ideal of "good books" actually is. Maybe I need to be known as an author of good books because that is something to be proud of. Maybe I can't be proud of being a skilled tech-creative freelancer, because of what my industry is doing to the arts, and has done for quite a long time. Maybe, I need to know that the art of my heart can win, instead of the business barf I was trained on.
Is that a noble ideal? I'm not sure. You tell me.
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